A few months ago, I responded to an open call from Occupy Museums for their Debtfair project. OM is a movement born out of Occupy Wall Street; an artist group which challenges the institution of art and museums, "WE OCCUPY MUSEUMS TO RECLAIM SPACE FOR MEANINGFUL CULTURE BY AND FOR THE 99%. ART AND CULTURE ARE THE SOUL OF THE COMMONS. ART IS NOT A LUXURY!" (quote from their website). The Debtfair project invited any artist to contribute detailed information regarding their own personal financial debt and how it affects their art, themselves as artists and their identity. OM was also looking at the intricacies of Puerto Rico's debt crisis and "La Promesa," calling for art by Puerto Rican artists. This information would then gathered and calculated to help draw certain conclusions about debt, how it relates to the art market and the Collector Class, revealing how financial institutions are intrinsically tied to cultural institutions - and this information would be presented within an art installation to be included in the Whitney Biennial (March 17th-June 11th, 2017).
In contemplating whether or not I should submit my information, I realized what a private topic debt is, and how much shame it can carry. The idea of participating in Debtfair was intriguing, especially in terms of being able to join the group in challenging the Institution from within the institution (i.e. Debtfair being presented within the Biennial). As I started answering the Debtfair survey, I thought more about my own debt and how it has affected me as an artist, specifically. For me, as a self-taught artist from a working-class background, I thought I may have a different perspective to offer the project (which I assumed would be mostly made up of artists in deep MFA debt). I certainly have the data (in terms of debt amounts) to contribute. Also, I just happened to have a series of paintings I did about Puerto Rico and my identity as an artist of Puerto Rican descent. So I decided that I would be a good candidate for a Debtfair and I went ahead and submitted my information - but not before reconciling my feelings about being in debt so that I could feel comfortable presenting about it publically (like right now!). It has been oddly liberating. I've actually started creating some artwork exploring the concepts of debt vs. abundance and experimenting with different mediums. In the end, for me, I think that this experience has enabled me to harness the burden of my debt and use it for self-empowerment.
In the end, OM chose 30 artists to hang their work within the Debtfair installation (I was not one of them) and the remaining 500 or so artists who contributed information have profiles on the website, which is projected onto the adjacent wall (I am one of these). Here are links to all 500+ Debtfair artists profiles, and here is the direct link to my profile. The collective running debt amount of all of the participating Debtfair artists (to date) is $55,176,849.84. The data that OM gathered is presented, in part, on the wall of the installation - and in greater detail on the infographics on their website (SEE HERE). It's quite fascinating to "follow the money," and see where all roads lead back to.
See more information about Debtfair and the Whitney Biennial, below.
Occupy Museums Debtfair installation at the Whitney Biennial, main wall.
Occupy Museums Debtfair installation - detail of "Nino Santo" by Adrian "Viajero" Roman.
Occupy Museums Debtfair installation - paintings hung on left with projection and screens on the right.
Here's a photo of me standing in front of my Debtfair installation artists profile page at the Whitney Biennial. The painting pictured is called "Puerto Rican Charm" created as a part of my Boriqua Sankofa series, created in 2015.
Debtfair installation from afar.
“The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art [...and] apartments in Manhattan.[...]” -Larry Fink, BlackRockDebt is the key to seeing American art today.Debt brings into focus a booming art market parallel to a generation of culture workers slipping into financial ruin. All debts are connected.
The average American artist today is a debtor; financializing their visions, unable to see beyond cresting loan payments, artists are pressured to adopt the aesthetics–and the politics–most pleasing to the market. They have become conditioned to wade ever deeper into financial risk in exchange for aspirations of success in the art market.
It is known that hedge fund managers, multinational banking CEOs, and real estate developers are the world’s largest collectors of both art and debt. Moonlighting on museum and auction house boards, this Collector Class derives profits from the trading of these two assets, art and debt, influencing the tides of the art world by shaping and monetizing the artistic canon.
The Collector Class has invented financial instruments that dissolve their own financial and political risk while everyone else bears the burden. The hidden violence in this system is now emerging.
Debt, in the form of indentured labor and colonial extraction, is at the foundation of global racial and social inequities. The process continues today as entire populations, including Greece, Argentina, and Puerto Rico, are forced to sell off their futures to vulture fund partners at 1000% return on investment. The Collector Class extracts value and reaps returns from securitized public resources, education debts, credit card debts, municipal debts and mortgage debts. All over the world, people have become debtors before citizens. Debtors before artists. Debtors before people. We believe that this world will not find balance until reparations are paid.
While elites join debts together into bundles to securitize profits, debtors see themselves as increasingly isolated, lost in one-sided financial precarity. And yet, unexpectedly, there lies before us an opportunity to locate ourselves in this global struggle. We are united in seeking economic justice and building a culture industry that works for us and our communities, not against us. And we are also united because all of our debts are connected. The time is now for we debtors to leverage our collective power.
Whitney Biennial 2017
The formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society are among the key themes reflected in the work of the artists selected for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The exhibition includes sixty-three participants, ranging from emerging to well-established individuals and collectives working in painting, sculpture, drawing, installation, film and video, photography, activism, performance, music, and video game design.
The Whitney Biennial is the longest running survey of contemporary art in the United States, with a history of exhibiting the most promising and influential artists and provoking lively debate. The 2017 Biennial is the Museum’s seventy-eighth in a continuous series of Annual and Biennial exhibitions initiated by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1932. It is the first to be held in the Whitney’s downtown home at 99 Gansevoort Street, and the largest ever in terms of gallery space.
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014
(For more photos of my visits to the Whitney Biennial and more art, goto my Instagram: @Whippedhoney)
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